2017 Award for Access

Detail from a poster for Eden by Steve Carter, Penumbra Theatre Company (1977): Givens Collection of African American Literature, University of Minnesota Libraries. From Umbra Search.

“Umbra Search African American History” 

Cecily Marcus, Principal Investigator, Umbra Search African American History; Curator, Givens Collection of African American Literature, Performing Arts Archives, and Upper Midwest Literary Archives, University of Minnesota 

Nominated by: Wendy Pradt Lougee, University Librarian and McKnight Presidential Professor, University of Minnesota 

Umbra Search African American History contains a widely diverse selection of special collections delivered simultaneously by numerous institutions, serving their own content within their own interfaces, while incorporating community participation. The goal of the project’s developer and founding director, Cecily Marcus, was to offer students, faculty, and local community members access to histories and experiences often silenced, marginalized, or otherwise left in the shadows of history. 

The Umbra Search project provides access to collection materials and promotes teaching and research in three ways: 

  1. A free embeddable widget and search tool, umbrasearch.org, that aggregates over 500,000 digitized materials (photographs, manuscripts, video, audio, etc.) from more than 1,000 U.S. libraries and archives; 
  2. digitized African American history materials from across University of Minnesota collections; and 
  3. support for students, scholars, artists, and the public through residencies, workshops, and events around the country. 
Poster for the 2003 production of Seven Guitars by August Wilson, Penumbra Theatre Company (2003): Givens Collection of African American Literature, University of Minnesota Libraries. From Umbra Search.

The umbrasearch.org database contains research materials from thousands of collections, including Yale University, the Smithsonian, and founding partner the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), which provides over half of the materials found in Umbra Search. 

To promote the project, a year-long social media campaign, #UmbraSearch365, produced Umbra Search content every day in order to increase exposure. The campaign has proved successful. Since its beta release in March 2015, Umbra Search has averaged 51,000 page views per month, and within a year more than doubled its user base. 

The Umbra Search project is leading the digitization of half a million African American history materials across more than 70 University of Minnesota collections that will be added to Umbra Search and the DPLA over the next two years. This work will provide broad access to records that may otherwise never be described and identified for use in African American history research. 

Umbra Search is currently collaborating with the University of Minnesota’s Digital Arts, Sciences, and Humanities program (DASH), and the Chicano studies department to plan an additional thematic digital aggregation for Chicano art collections. 

Amistad Research Center, a nationally recognized African American historical resource institution based in New Orleans, is also a founding partner of Umbra Search. Amistad’s Executive Director Dr. Kara Tucina Olidge states, “By providing access to thousands of digitized materials, Umbra Search makes it possible to do research at libraries all across the country without getting on a plane. We are honored to be an Umbra Search partner.”